Headlines: March 3rd, 2011

Presenting worst case scenarios when handling disasters is not helpful because the public can be misled into thinking that the picture presented is likely to happen. This is one of the main findings from a report on the use of scientific advice and evidence in emergencies from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

The report examines the use of scientific advice in emergencies using swine flu, volcanic ash, space weather and cyber security.

The Committee cites the way the flu pandemic was handled. There was sensationalised media reporting about the projected deaths from swine flu based on a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’. A better approach would be to emphasise the range and likelihood of various possibilities to the public with a ‘most probable scenario’.

The Committee also criticised the response to the Icelandic volcanic eruption in April 2010 which it describes as a stark example of the lack of scientific input in risk assessment. The risk of disruption to aviation caused by a natural disaster was dropped from the assessment process in 2009, despite warnings from earth scientists. Had the concerns of the scientific community been heard, the Government would undoubtedly have been better able to cope with a situation that ended up costing the UK economy hundreds of millions of pounds.

Cyber attacks pose a national security risk and the Committee recommends that the Government actively ensures that requirements for security clearance do not deter academics from providing scientific advice to government.

It also says an understanding of human behaviour is essential in risk assessment, planning and response, citing debate around expectations of the public in maintaining cyber defences, and says it is disappointed at the lack of focus on social and behavioural science in government to date. The Committee expects that the newly established Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight team will provide input to risk assessment for emergencies.